THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Dirty Undies

Seeing and unseeing the thong in pop culture

by Isabel Guarnieri

Illustration by Sophia Meng

published October 11, 2019


I bought my first thong when I was 15. It was a cinnamon color with light blue polka dots, framed by a white lace trim. To my teenage self, there was something about wearing the thong that felt rebellious; I wondered what people would think if they knew I was wearing it or saw it slip out of my waistband. That thought was both alluring and terrifying to me—the thong was a symbol of women’s sexuality and confidence that I was not ready to inhabit but wanted to try on.

The thong works to conceal but also be revealed. Thin strips and a string rear render it invisible, almost a second skin. When hidden, the thong’s discreetness makes it acceptable. According to the Forbes guide “What Not to Wear to Work,” anything that reveals panty lines is inappropriate office attire. A thong at work can be a way to comply with workplace respectability. When rendered visible, however, the thong becomes imbued with meaning as an overtly sexual object. The thin straps are easily altered, allowing the wearer to reposition or reveal them in low-riding clothing. Thongs heighten the bodily form, creating lines that accentuate the waist and shape the butt. Thongs also feel flimsy and delicate, often incorporating materials like lace, cotton and silk that are associated with femininity. Made visible, the thong can be a tool of seduction, a symbol of overt feminine sexuality. In the context of the workplace, this visibility would sexualize the thong wearer and become entirely inappropriate.

At 15, I already knew what it meant to wear a thong—or, rather, what it meant for someone to see I was wearing a thong. This was bound up in conceptions of women’s sexuality that I had both absorbed and was afraid of having imposed on me. The thong held dual meanings for me: It was a signal of sexual availability and confidence that I could either exert or have mapped onto me. Kept secret, it only had as much power as I inscribed to it. What I didn’t know was that these implicit associations were entangled with the media’s portrayal of the woman who ushered thongs into popular consciousness, a woman whose name became the site for sex shaming on a national scale.

That woman—Monica Lewinsky—wore thongs.

The thong staked its place in history with a mention in the Starr Report, independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s official report to the House based on his investigation of President Bill Clinton. According to the account, Monica Lewinsky initiated her first sexual encounter with President Clinton by lifting her jacket and showing him the straps of her thong underwear. This act became a tabloid sensation as the country was consumed by the salacious details of their affair. A Salon article from 1998 reads: “Eve had her apple. Monica had her thong.” Never mind that Clinton was the President of the United States and Lewinsky a 22-year old White House intern; to the press, Lewinsky was a skilled, manipulative temptress—the thong, her weapon of choice.

Monica Lewinsky showed the world how powerful a woman’s sexual confidence can be. A woman and her thong almost toppled a President. The thong could have been read as a tool that empowered Lewinsky, who made the thong visible in an office setting to display her interest and availability. But the media instead transformed the thong into a tool to humiliate her. “Thong Snapper” became one of the media’s many derogatory nicknames for her during that era. In an interview with Lewinky in 1999, Barbara Walters asked: “You showed the President your thong underwear. Where did you get the nerve?” Lewinsky responded: “If you take my word for it, it was a small, subtle, flirtatious gesture. And that's me.” That innate boldness made Lewinsky the central villain in a story that was really about the most powerful man in the world exploiting a severe power imbalance for his own sexual pleasure, then making Lewinsky the scapegoat. This was the beginning of the thong’s place in pop culture: the material site where discourse around women’s sexuality revolved around a tiny slip of fabric.

 

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When I tell my parents I’m writing about thongs, they start awkwardly gyrating and singing a tune I don’t recognize. You have to listen to the "Thong Song!" they tell me. It’s a cultural reference I am too young to remember, an unfortunately catchy single by SisQó released in 2000 that peaked at #3 on the Billboard Charts. In the hook, SisQó implores: “All night long / Let me see that thong!” The music video is filled with darkand light-skinned women of color dancing in thong bikinis, with a mostly-clothed SisQó at the center. Here, the thong is stripped of the autonomy and confidence that Lewinsky demonstrated and is instead an object upon which men can project their fantasies around sex and women’s bodies.

This projection of fantasy is underscored by how and when the thong is made visible in the video. The video opens on SisQó in a house in Miami, as his young daughter approaches him and holds up a lacy red thong, asking “Daddy, what’s this?” SisQó freezes, dumbfounded, and presumably looking for an appropriate response. In a bizarre transition, the video pans to buses filled with women, with intermittent scenes of SisQó grinning while twirling the thong around his hand, as a voiceover narrates, “This thing right here is letting all the ladies know what guys talk about.” This line positions both the thong and women's bodies as subjects of male conversation and scrutiny. Through the rest of the video, the thong is made visible on women’s bodies through fabric and in the form of thong bikinis. In the final scene, the women’s neon thongs glow under sheer clothing in a black-lit club. Even distorted through the semblance of fabric, the thong’s limited visibility encourages imagination around a woman’s body that is never fully revealed.

Later in 2000, SisQó released a remix of the song and an alternate music video featuring the Black female rapper Foxy Brown. In an attempt to give the women in the video more agency, Brown starts off the song by saying, “This thing right here/ Is the official ladies anthem”—disrupting SisQó’s claim that the thong is “what guys talk about.” The song continues to say, “Ladies, I want you to put your drinks down [and] pull your thongs up,” a call for women to take more control of their bodies and exert sexual confidence through the thong. But this call is fraught for reasons beyond the thong’s history. As Miller Young explores in her book A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography, when Black women exhibit sexual confidence they are seen as playing into the Jezebel stereotype. The Jezebel has an insatiable appetite for sex and a flagrant disregard for nudity, and the trope often coincides with visual racialized tropes, such as a big butt, that emerged out of the colonial exploitation of African women. Despite the lyrics that compel women to take more control over their sexuality, the music video still centers around SisQó ogling barely-clothed women of color. The new video continues to present women’s bodies as sexualized objects, placing Brown’s attempts to reclaim the thong in tension with racialized stereotypes and the male gaze that shapes the video.   

In the media circus that surrounded Monica Lewinsky in 1997, the Boston Globe described her as a Jezebel, placing a white woman within a racialized stereotype and equating her supposed promiscuity to the hypersexuality imposed on Black women. While media outlets slammed Lewinsky daily, the repercussions for white women were instead deflected by constructing her licentiousness as almost “black.”

 

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In 1999, between the Lewinsky-Clinton scandal and the release of the “Thong Song,” thongs were the fastest-growing category of women’s underwear. According to the Wall Street Journal, thongs won over the mainstream market by disassociating from sex and catering to fashion utility by eliminating panty lines—severing them from Monica Lewinsky and the “anything-goes beaches of Brazil.” Through this new marketing, the thong became “naughty for nice people,” and started to be sold at expensive clothing stores like Sak’s Fifth Avenue and J. Crew that cater to predominantly white audiences. As hypersexuality was imposed on Black women, distancing from this sexual appeal sanitized the thong to make it more palatable for white consumers.

But the thong was never able to completely rebrand itself. Abercrombie & Fitch came under fire in 2002 when they released a line of thongs in children’s sizes printed with sayings such as “wink wink” and “eye candy.” According to CNN Money, much of this blowback came from conservative Christian nonprofit organizations. The outrage is understandable, as the thong and the slogans attached encouraged the sexualization of girls as young as ten. However, critics used language that disparaged all expressions of women’s sexuality, arguing that the thongs “turn wearers into sex objects and victims of lost innocence.”According to Bloomberg Businessweek, one critic of Abercrombie & Fitch even claimed that the underwear would increase the risk of sexual assault.

The male gaze on the thong and a woman’s body can be twisted and used to justify violence. Last year in Ireland, a 27-year old man was acquitted of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old girl after a trial in which the lawyer mentioned that the girl was wearing a lacy thong. According to NPR, the verdict set off protests across the country in which people carried thongs and signs reading “End victim blaming in the courts.” On social media, this movement was accompanied by people posting photos of thongs with the hashtag #ThisIsNotConsent. Through this trial, the thong became a tool for justifying the objectification of a minor’s body and manipulating the agency a thong can give a woman. But the protests and social media backlash recast this reading, reclaiming the thong as a symbol to resist patriarchal judicial systems that condemn survivors.

 

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There is a part of me that wants to throw out all my thongs and chart a new path. I’m not alone. In recent years, the popularity of the thong has decreased. Younger generations are embracing granny panties, prompting headlines like the New York Times’ 2015 “Young Women Say No to Thongs.” This move to fuller styles is celebrated as a way for women to buy underwear that is comfortable and for themselves rather than for a man’s visual pleasure. Even trying to avoid panty lines has been construed as catering to male-dominanted office standards.

New boutique underwear businesses championed by young white women entrepreneurs are capitalizing on this shift. One of the offerings of the clothing label Me and You, featured in the Times article, is a pair of pink granny panties with the word “Feminist” printed in curly red font. The founder of Me and You, Julia Baylis, told the New York Times: “Most lingerie is designed to appeal to a man. For us, that’s not even a consideration. This is underwear you wear totally for you.” In contrast to sexualized thongs, granny panties convey self-respect, independence, and a rejection of dressing for men’s pleasure. While there is nothing wrong with seeking comfort in your second skin, framing the thong as purely an object of men’s pleasure delegitimizes the confidence it does give women. Moreover, drawing on the way the thong is framed by the male gaze perpetuates the racialized dichotomy of women’s sexuality, as these white women entrepreneurs frame themselves as too pure for the skimpy thong. If modesty and sex are oppositional, whiteness and Blackness too exist on divergent sides of that spectrum.

So what do we do with the thong considering the space it occupies in pop culture?

In 2019 and in the wake of the #MeToo movement, Monica Lewinsky reclaimed the narrative that once ostracized her, becoming a powerful anti-bullying advocate and even admitting to herself how her consensual relationship with President Bill Clinton should be read differently based on the staggering power differential. I deeply admire Lewinsky’s resilience. As I approach the age she was when the scandal broke, I struggle to imagine how I would fare in her shoes. But I wonder how her whiteness may have protected her from a legacy of hypersexuality. Twenty years after the Starr Investigation and due in part to the labor of the Black women that founded the #MeToo movement, history will look kindly on Monica Lewinsky. The societal investment in white innocence is what makes her reinvention possible, an option not afforded equally to all women. Most people my age still associate the thong with sex and sexual confidence, but its negative association with Lewinsky has largely faded with time.

By choosing either to highlight or obscure the thong’s relationship to racialized sexuality, white women have continually redefined the thong’s meaning in fashion and pop culture. But Black women have been involved in this construction as well. In Foxy Brown’s verse in the alternate “Thong Song,” she calls for a world in which thongs personally and sexually empower women. Removed from the male gaze and stereotypes of hypersexuality placed on Black women by white audiences, the thong takes on the meaning the wearer wants to ascribe to it. A reconsideration of the thong requires a shift in how we process women’s agency and sex positivity across race, gender and class lines.

My underwear is not a political statement. It is a profoundly personal one based on what makes me feel most comfortable and how I want to frame my body. I used to say it was all about the panty lines, and that is a part of it—but I am no longer afraid of people knowing or even seeing that I wear thongs. In our media, our music, and our courts of law, women’s sexuality is constantly being turned into the subject of outside gaze and public negotiation. But in the end, it is a decision I make for myself every morning. And I choose a thong every time. I love thongs for their capacity to be redefined on my own terms.

 

ISABEL GUARNIERI B’20 threw out all her granny panties years ago.